Qasin felt his blood boiling as the beady eyes of the citizens stared at him and Eve. He saw the way their eyes squinted, their teeth gritted, and he heard the way their voice shifted from higher pitches to lower tones. He knew why they were staring. This wasn’t fame; this was disgust. These were the same beady eyes he had grown to know and loathe from the Human Council, and just that connection made his hand grip even harder on the hilt of his sword as he walked through the streets of the Animal Kingdom’s capital. It took every ounce of his willpower to not slice them all open from front to back.
“Careful.” Eve put her hand on Qasin’s shoulder as his eyes began to harden. “Don’t let your rage give up our strategic advantage.”
“Did you not recently divulge to me that, with certainty, you knew he wouldn’t be here?” Qasin could feel his face reddening as the stares kept following him, but it wasn’t just the disgust that drew his ire. He was used to being hated. He was used to being the worthless monarch who let his people lose land and borders to White-Horns and Black-Wings. It was the scene replaying through his mind, that girl getting thrown to the ground and pushed around. It was the way he had watched them treat a seemingly respectable person like trash because she was Human and the knowledge that it was the same with him. They weren’t looking him over with hatred, but rather they were looking down on him with disdain.
“I did, and I can guarantee it. He is not here anymore.” Eve straightened her back and removed her hand from Qasin’s shoulder.
“Then why must we remain in this irksome place? The only remedy that could possibly cure these ingrates of their twisted disposition is a good blade.”
“And I agree, but we aren’t the ones to deliver it to them. We need them as bodies in our plan,” Eve spoke in a hushed tone, signaling with her hands for Qasin to do the same. “Remember, every day we’ve been away from Darwin, his forces have likely grown stronger. He won’t be the easy man to reach that he once was.”
“Why do his forces matter? I thought our goal was merely to find him.” Qasin turned his head to look at her. What am I missing here?
“Because, when we go to visit him, we have to steal him from Stephanie,” Eve grumbled. “We weren’t able to snag him before she got his hands on him.”
“I thought you said that you met up with him prior to their introduction.”
“Yes, I did; but, since I needed more time to finish preparations, I sent him to go get something for me. Unfortunately, she had already killed everything in the dungeon he was supposed to retrieve the item from, and she had assumed the position of the boss there. She used the reward as a way to sink her claws into him.” Eve was unusually irrate. Normally, she gave roundabout, vague answers, but now it was all being clearly spelled out. She was past the point of peeved, and every mention of the name Stephanie caused her red eyes to burn brighter like a fresh ember being struck by wind.
“So we have to fight our way through his entire army because you don’t think he’ll listen to you? How is he going to be more likely to listen to you after that?”
“It’s not going to be about convincing him anymore. It’ll be about stopping him,” Eve said. Then, after making a loud huffing sound, she added, “And that’s enough of the subject. You’ll just have to trust me.”
“The last I remember, you were the one accusing me of rushing to violence.” Qasin smirked for the first time since they had entered the city. She had been holding his lack of diplomacy over him at every opportunity, yet now she wanted to go to war before even starting the discussion.
“Diplomacy ended almost thirty years ago.” Eve shifted her eyes again, but the crimson flare was visible.
They kept walking in silence, the eyes of everyone following them until they reached the royal palace. There, they were greeted by two tiger-men who stood in front of a white gate that blocked their entrance to a set of stairs leading up to the main palace. “They keep popping up everywhere,” the first guard said as Eve and Qasin approached. “How this filth keeps making it through the gates, I’ll never understand. Someone should fire the guards that let them slip into our pure and beautiful city.”
“You know we can hear you gents.” A smile spread across Eve’s face as she walked defiantly up to the jabbering Pantheras. “Don’t you think it’s a bit rude to talk about your guests like that?”
“Ugh, the wannabe monkey is talking to us,” the guard on the left said, looking down at Eve.
“I have been told there is more than one way to skin a cat,” Qasin threatened as he did his best to repress the bile brought up by being around such scum. The threat wasn’t idle, either. It was taking everything in his power just to stop his weapon from quenching its thirst. “Should we try a few out?”
“Do you hear that? He’s saying our lives are in mortal danger,” the right guard pulled up his halberd into fighting position. “I believe that means we get to kill him, and it won’t be breaking the peace. We’ll be enforcing it.”
“Kill him? Why don’t we start with hurting and work our way from there? I love to hear his kind scream, and that woman . . .” The other guard also grabbed his halberd, a wicked grin growing across both their faces as they licked their lips and readied themselves for the fight.
“Stop it,” a panda who was passing by called from above. “The two of you would not win a struggle with them if you trained for a hundred years, and I’d rather not lose any of my children to wanton violence.”
“I take it you are the King we have come to seek an audience with.” Eve ignored the two guards and walked right past them. “My name is Eve, and I believe you’ll want to hear what we have to say.”
Qasin glared at the two guards for a minute and then followed Eve up the stairs to meet with the Panda King.
“I consider myself more of a father than a King, but I suppose you could title me such.” The Panda King turned and began to saunter to the gardens on the side of the palace. “Now, if you’ll excuse my bluntness–time being a commodity I don’t always have–what brings two Humans reeking with the smell of burnt blood and steel to my doorstep?”
“News, Your Excellency, dire news. A man came through here a while ago, eyes red like mine and skin just as pale. I’m sure he stood out,” Eve said, her head moving very slightly as she followed the Panda King’s expression.
“Yes, I remember the young man. He had great potential,” the King scratched his chin thoughtfully. “He was a very bright, talented and helpful lad. He is currently aiding us in solving many of our bandit issues. He should be back shortly. Why do you ask?”
“Are the bandits Human?” Eve followed up.
“Yes?” The Panda paused, looking at Qasin, whose hand had gripped the hilt to the point his knuckles were white. He continued as if he owed an explanation: “You know how our Kingdom goes through waves of species revolts. It’s nothing against Humans in particular. It was Felines before them.”
“Well, that’s perfect. If I’m not mistaken, right now his way of getting rid of your bandit problem is to condense them into a single trained, armored, unified army,” Eve matter-of-factly stated.
“How did you come across this knowledge?”
“Were you visited by a golden-haired woman, someone you thought you knew and trusted, who told you he could take care of the bandits who have been plaguing you?”
“I was. She did.” The Panda King’s face crinkled up as his brow furrowed.
“She likely told you that you would come across a great swordsman and that you needed to send him specifically to solve your bandit problems,” Eve pressed, the physical distance between her and the Panda closing as she drew closer to the heart of the matter.
“She did . . .” He looked at the ground then back up at Eve. “What is your next guess concerning our encounter?” the panda queried.
“My next guess is that she told you he was a threat, but you couldn’t kill him yourself.” Eve slowly moved around the stunned King until she was at his side. “I’m guessing she even had a suggestion on how to kill him: that you needed to use one of the people who just came off the boat, a mercenary in the land, so the trail wouldn’t come back to you. Then, when your first attempt failed, she told you to send him out again while she put something together for him?”
“I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, young miss. I know nothing of you, and you know a great deal of me, don’t you?” The Panda King’s eyes narrowed as they focused intently on Eve.
“Of you? Little. Of the woman, everything.” Eve grinned.
“You said the news was dire. What threat has she manifested within my realm?” The Panda King’s voice had gone from an overly-friendly, gentle tone to one that stung sharply like thorns on the ears.
“That man, the one you sent to handle the bandits, has united them by now. He is converting them to be the blood of his blood and gathering an army even as we speak. He will tirelessly work to recruit the beasts and villains of this land every minute of every hour of every day until he is stopped, and if he is not stopped in time, his men will march across this city and burn it and all its people.” Eve painted the picture of his marching and burning of the town with her hands as well as her words. “He. Will. End. Everyone.”
“That’s preposterous. We could hold off every enemy from here to the ends of Tiqpa without them ever even breaking down our initial fortifications,” the Panda King scoffed.
“You don’t understand. Once they join him, they will be stronger, faster, smarter and more organized than they ever were before. They will be slaves to his blood and blessed by his strength. Imagine the toughest beast in those wilds. He will capture it. Then another and then another. His numbers will double, triple and then quadruple, continuing to grow every day. Every day, the ones he takes will grow exponentially faster than you are prepared for. He’s already crushed an entire White-Wing army, and he was in his infancy, just beginning to understand his power.” She stepped back, regaining a normal distance from the King. “Do you really want to wait for his forces to grow even stronger?”
“And why am I to believe you? Who is to say you aren’t playing a game with me like you claim that blonde woman did,” the Panda King scoffed. “He brought me a head, the head of the leader of the camp I sent him to clear. He didn’t convert them, he killed them. I have more reason to trust her than you.”
“Just a head though, right? Only one? Send a scout. You have plenty to spare in times of peace. One shouldn’t be a strain. Send one scout, and have him explore and check the base of the men you sent him to kill. I guarantee you will only find one body, the body of their old leader,” Eve turned and confidently started walking down the stairs away from the palace. Qasin, still silently watching the exchange, still wishing it were one of violence and not words, turned and followed after her. “When your scouts report back, they will tell you that they found no bodies. That all the camps you thought he had cleared of the bandit infestation had not a single sign of death except that of their leaders. Then you will know what I said was true, and then you will come and find me. But since that won’t be for a while, I’m going to get some lunch while I wait.”
The befuddled panda stayed atop the stairs, watching as they left.
“Are you certain this is the right course of action?” Qasin probed again. “He is your brother, after all. Are you sure you cannot reason with him?”
“Qasin, you might not understand this, but when it comes to Stephanie, there is no other option. Whatever games you try to play with, she invented them. Whatever logic you try to twist, she wrote the book on how to twist it.” Eve’s confidence momentarily crumbled. Her lips quivered and her very eyes seemed to shudder. “If we don’t stop her here, all is lost.”
Qasin, who clearly caught the expression, sighed. He had followed her all the way here to chase her brother, and yet every day it was more doom and gloom prophecies regarding this woman, Stephanie. The confident, strong, beautiful woman he had tailed across an ocean was now quivering in the capital where she meant to beg for an army. Was this help absolutely necessary? Was he useless to her? Was the situation really so desperate? The questions rattled through his mind as they stirred up a wave of heat and anger from his belly, a rage that made his hand want to move when it should stay still–a madness that fueled his blade’s thirst, and reminded him that no matter how pretty the thought of diplomacy might be, it was only a matter of time until he would need to fight again.